Jerez, the Spanish round of MotoGP, and the first event back on European soil, would in the end come down to a trial of grip. The riders and teams who understood the circumstances best, exploited their strengths, and disguised their weaknesses would come out on top. In all three races on Sunday, the cream rose to the top. Despite rising temperatures and falling grip levels, the smart riders and teams triumphed in all three classes.
In Moto3, KTM made a welcome return to the front, with the Austrian bikes back to challenge the hegemony of Honda in the smallest of the three classes. That race would be won in a brilliant last-corner move when the two riders battling for the lead opened the door for the bike in third. In Moto2, a tense duel would be settled by a mistake, leaving the last man standing to deal with staying concentrated for the second half of the race. And in MotoGP, a thoroughly imperious display saw one rider conquer Jerez, leaving a bloodbath in his wake. Jerez saw three deserving winners emerge.
Grip was already poor for Moto3, but the lighter bikes and their smaller tires are the least affected of the three classes. Things got a lot worse for Moto2, riders struggling for grip, and the race decided by one of the two men battling for victory crashed out a third of the way into the race. The burning Andalusian sun raised track temperatures even higher for MotoGP, and that would prove decisive in the race. Those capable of handling the poor grip triumphed, those who had counted on their good form from the morning warm up transferring to the race came away bitterly disappointed.
The first sign of trouble came when the safety car crashed in the break between the Moto2 and MotoGP races. FIM Safety Officer Franco Uncini and his passenger were taken to hospital with broken ribs for the pair of them, and a broken arm for the passenger after Uncini lost control of the BMW Safety Car on the exit of Turn 5, the car slamming into the tire wall at high speed. Though Uncini was traveling fast, spectators observed that the crash had been a strange one, the vehicle making an unexpected movement before it left the track. Grip was clearly an issue, even for a fast BMW with four fat tires to keep it stuck to the ground.
The most likely culprit is the combination of an ancient surface – the track has not been resurfaced since 2003, the top layer now 14 years old and very smooth and greasy – and the very high track temperatures. The track's saving grace is the fact that Formula One does not race there, meaning that the track is not particularly bumpy. If there were bumps at the track too, the riders would long ago have refused to race at the track due to the surface.
Low grip, on the other hand, is something the riders are resigned to just having to deal with. Which bikes and which riders do that tends to change around from year to year, as bikes evolve, and tires are modified to handle the changing conditions. And some riders are just better at it at others, finding grip where others struggle, and getting the most from what is available.
At Jerez, that was Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider was sublime throughout the weekend, topping every session of practice bar FP4 on Saturday and Sunday morning warm up. He took a superb pole, setting a fast lap in front of his teammate, daring Marc Márquez to try to go faster than him despite having a tow. He had described it as a challenge to his teammate on Saturday, and on Sunday he doubled down on that challenge. Pedrosa led from the flag, and whenever Márquez closed in on him, Pedrosa upped the pace to open the gap again.
In the end, Pedrosa went unchallenged for the win, the thirtieth of his MotoGP career. It would be unfair to say he cruised to victory, as the Repsol Honda rider pushed close to the limit every lap of the race, even after opening a sizable gap to his teammate and having the win in the bag. It was the consistency of his pace which was the decisive factor, only twice slipping into the 1'41s, once on lap 21 after a mistake, and then on the final lap once he was assured of victory.
With victory at Jerez, Pedrosa took a truly remarkable record. He became the first rider in history to win at least one race every year for at least sixteen consecutive seasons. That prompted one journalist to ask if Pedrosa saw himself as having gone from favorite when he entered the class in 2006, to outsider in 2017. Pedrosa was dismissive at first, replying, "You guys change so much the opinion that it’s difficult to say."
The philosopher king
But in typical Pedrosa form, he then offered a thoughtful and fascinating insight into the mind of a rider. "I would say that I’m happy because I’m much more conscious now," he told the press conference. When I was younger things came a lot more natural and from your unconscious part. You don’t know why is happening and why suddenly you are so fast or so good or why so many people is behind you. But as you get older you have to be more conscious of what is happening. You have to make it happen more. It doesn’t come that easy. You have to work more on your conscious side. It’s more difficult to make things happen unconscious.
"It’s much more fun now when things are happening. Outsider, favorite, it really doesn’t matter because you are focused on your goal. It’s not happening because the people are saying something about it, it’s just happening because you are making it happen. Like today, it’s an amazing feeling because of that."
Márquez rode home to second, clear of any challenge from behind, but unable to put up any fight to his teammate. If he felt any disappointment, he was careful to hide it, pointing to the progress made in the championship. He had cut his deficit to leader Valentino Rossi from 18 points to just 4 points. After a difficult start to the season, Márquez was willing to settle for that.
Up and down
"I start the season quite good, but Qatar with the front tire didn’t feel right and then I struggled a lot in the race," Márquez told the press conference. "Then in Argentina, maybe the confidence was too high and I did a mistake. Then I say, okay, we must change something. Austin was a great weekend. Here I know that for me was one of the most important weekends of the year, and we did really good. I’m proud of my team, of my level in this circuit. But of course today the mentality was push but inside the limit, not more."
Where has this Honda renaissance come from, after such a tough start to the 2017 season? "I would say we are learning more about the bike and getting closer to where the bike is looking stronger," Pedrosa opined. "Also setup-wise and electronics, all that goes into the setting of the bike. Also, you are getting more used to the riding style of the bike and learning of our mistakes or maybe our not good points. We are able to stay more in the good area."
But Pedrosa also pointed out that the success of the Hondas was also down to the weakness of their rivals, especially the Yamaha, at a track they are traditionally strong. "You have to add that for some reason Yamaha was not strong this year here when normally they are. What we can do is try to step up little by little. Since the last race we are improving and hopefully we can keep improving in the same line."
Lorenzoland is nigh
If the Yamahas were not a fixture at Jerez, regular podium goer Jorge Lorenzo certainly was. Lorenzo had arrived at Jerez with doubt still surrounding him. Winter testing had been far from promising, and the results of the first three races were looking decidedly worrying. A dismal opening race, then a first corner crash in Argentina were pretty terrible. Things were a little better in Austin, though ninth place was hardly convincing.
Lorenzo insisted that reverting to the original higher seat had made a big difference, and that he was making more progress than was apparent. Fans and media remained skeptical, mindful of the experience of Valentino Rossi when he came to the Italian factory, and needed to see actual proof in the form of results. An occasional quick session of practice did not count. Podiums were what was needed. And preferably wins.
A podium was what Lorenzo achieved at Jerez, and one he celebrated like a win. The release of tension and celebration at the end of the race was a sign of just how much pressure Lorenzo had been under, and how much he had put on himself. "Best birthday present ever," is how he described it. "It’s more than a victory with the Yamaha because everybody knows the difficulties at this moment to be competitive in the dry with a special bike that we have now with the Ducati and in a difficult track for us like has been Jerez in the last years."
Where had the victory come from? Lorenzo explained once again that it was a combination of things. More time on the bike meant that he was slowly starting to adapt his style to what the Ducati demands of its riders. The changes to his style were starting to come more naturally. Riding the bike at a track he knows well and loves made it easier to work on his riding. Finding his rhythm was easier, and the more naturally he rode, the faster he went.
The podium gave Lorenzo a big confidence boost, and an answer to his critics. "You don’t have to doubt about my riding, my mentality," Lorenzo told the press conference. "Some people did. They speak too early and finally they have to take their words in their mouth, because you cannot doubt about any rider in the championship. Because all the riders that come into the world championship are very good and can be in the front, but especially a rider who win many races and titles."
Despite Lorenzo's first podium, there is still cause for concern. When I congratulated Ducati sporting director Davide Tardozzi on Lorenzo's podium, he pointed to the fact that the Spaniard had finished nearly fifteen seconds behind the winner. This is actually a big improvement: since 2010, the gap has never been closer than 25 seconds. Even Andrea Dovizioso, who crossed the line in fifth, had his best race at Ducati's bogey track since he jumped off the Tech 3 Yamaha in 2013. His gap to the winner was just under 23 seconds, despite starting from fourteenth on the grid and having to fight his way forward.
The Flying Frenchman
First satellite rider was – unsurprisingly – Johann Zarco, but it was the way Zarco achieved his best result in MotoGP which was the real shocker. Zarco once again showed himself to be no respecter of fame or reputation, flying into battle with anyone who got in his way. He disposed of the factory Movistar Yamahas in the opening laps. He barged past the rest to take on Marc Márquez, the fought his way past the Repsol Honda rider, before having to concede defeat to the reigning world champion. It was a valiant effort, which ultimately went unrewarded, especially once he slipped from third to fourth when Jorge Lorenzo got back past him.
What impressed most once again was the way that Zarco looked like he had been racing MotoGP for the past three or four seasons. The Frenchman looked at home on the bike, and set himself no limits. Once he got past Márquez, he had already set his sights on Pedrosa ahead, Zarco said, but after a couple of warnings from the tires, Zarco let Pedrosa go, and then Márquez and Lorenzo as well.
Zarco had made an impression on the two men who got past him to put him off the podium. "Zarco already was really impressive in Qatar," Marc Márquez told the press conference. "He start and he go. Today I fight with him two or three laps because still my rear tire was not good enough and then he was pushing a lot. He reminded me a little bit of me when I arrive in MotoGP. Really aggressive, pushing on the limit, warnings and nearly crashing. But in the end is the way to learn. If he want to learn, he need to be like this. He need to push from the beginning and try to arrive where he can. I think he’s in a good way. Today he’s the first Yamaha, so not so bad."
Lorenzo admired Zarco just as much, though he was less enamored of the Tech 3 rider's aggression. "I like a lot the attitude of Johan because he just think about racing," Lorenzo said. "He’s very determined on the bike. If he’s won world champion two times in Moto2 it's because he’s very good." Having the easy-to-ride Yamaha made it quicker to build speed and determination. "Sometimes a little bit too determined, especially when he’s fighting with another rider," Lorenzo half joked. "He needs to be a little more careful because these bikes are bigger and they have more energy than the Moto2 bikes. But apart from that, I like a lot the attitude of him. He’s a really, really good rider. "
Good, but outclassed
That aggression early on is what separates him from his teammate Jonas Folger, the German told us. Where Folger was struggling with a full tank and new tires, Zarco was able to push right from the start, which put him in the front group and immediately in contention for the podium. Folger also noted that when he caught Valentino Rossi, he had taken extra care in passing him. Zarco, by contrast, treated Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo with exactly the same contempt he has for any other rider.
Zarco's fourth place made him the first Yamaha home at Jerez. The combination of the 2016 chassis, Zarco's riding style, and his choice of the medium front tire seemed to give him an edge over the others. It was notable that the medium front appeared to be the better of the three front tires available. Four riders chose to run the medium front during the race, two of whom finished third and fourth, the third of whom crossed the line in eighth.
The strength of the Tech 3 results are in stark contrast to the factory Yamahas. After a very strong showing in the morning warm up, Maverick Viñales had already quietly started thinking about the victory, he confided in us. Yet once the race started, he quickly understood that no such thing was possible. Where he had suffered with the rear tire spinning too much through left handers on Saturday, the set up change they effected for warm up and the race saw Viñales struggle for grip in the front on Sunday afternoon.
Under the Michelin bus
The problem was even visible to the riders he was racing against. "With Maverick, I saw that his feeling on the front was very very bad, so he couldn't ride in a normal way," Andrea Dovizioso explained to us. Viñales himself put his issues down to a problem with the tires, though he was careful not to come out and say it directly. After beating around the bush for a while, Viñales finally gave some kind of answer. "I cannot tell the truth," Viñales sighed. "Finally … it's difficult. I cannot say anything. In the end, if you say something, you get an email. So you cannot say something about this."
Speaking to the Spanish and Catalan press, he was even more adamant. His team had done a brilliant job all weekend, he said, and he didn't want to blame his team for the issues. The only logical explanation in Viñales' mind was that the front tire he had been given was not performing the way it should.
When asked if the setup changes his team had made on Sunday, changing the balance of the bike to put a little more weight on the front, could have caused the issue, Viñales was once again outspoken. "No," he replied, "because this morning was really good on the front. I was feeling quite impressive, because where we improved a little bit more was to make more corner speed, and to close the corner with the front tire. That's why I'm so disappointed, because this morning the front tire was working really good. I didn't use so much the rear. That's why I'm really disappointed, because we don't understand why the bike changed so much in just four hours."
It ain't half hotter
The most obvious thing that changed in just four hours was the track temperature. In the morning track temp was in the very low 20s. In the afternoon, it was over 20°C hotter. That would have a massive effect on tires and tire wear, especially on a track as greasy and lacking grip as Jerez.
Viñales' teammate fared even worse than the Spaniard. Valentino Rossi came to Spain hoping to at least defend, and preferably extend his lead in the championship. At a track he loves, where he had a massive win last year, on a bike that is supposed to suit the circuit, Rossi was hoping for at least a podium.
Once he got to Jerez, those hopes were shattered. The front end problems he had throughout winter testing were back once again, the tire giving him a lack of feedback. The team gambled on a setup change for morning warm up on Sunday, but that simply didn't work. They then gambled on another change for the race, and that didn't work either. "We risked, but as always we had to try because in the warm-up I was ninth," Rossi lamented.
After putting up a stiff fight early on, Rossi was quickly left to fall down through the field during the race. His initial problems had been setup, as Dovizioso noted when he passed him. "With Valentino it was very difficult to understand, because he was just not too fast. But I didn't see anything strange," the Ducati rider said.
Definitely a tire
Adding insult to injury, later in the race, Rossi started to get a severe vibration on the tire which forced him to slow down. "In the end, during the last six or seven laps, especially on the left, I start to have a very high vibration and I start to slow down three seconds per lap. At the end I was lucky to arrive."
Rossi crossed the line in tenth, salvaging six points in the championship. He now leads by just two points from his teammate, who is another two points ahead of Marc Márquez. Ten points behind Rossi sits Dani Pedrosa, meaning the whole field is extremely tight. With 14 races left, and 350 potential points to be had, the championship is wide open. Anything can happen.
And it usually does. Andrea Dovizioso gave a possible explanation for the wild variation in fortunes between the Hondas and Yamahas – and indeed the Ducatis – at each round. The Yamahas dominated at Qatar and Argentina, while Honda was clearly superior at Austin and here in Jerez. According to Dovi, the problem may be that the tires vary subtly from race to race, making it hard to get some consistency from them. "With Michelin still, it's not so easy to manage every weekend. The situation is never stable, so you have to be smart to manage the situation. Every weekend is different, and something different happened this weekend to the last weekend," Dovizioso said. "Every weekend, you have to adapt and understand exactly what's going on. It's not so easy, but it's the same for everybody. This is the championship."
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